Taking care of art: Philippe Van Cauteren and the Kathmandu Triennale

La.Lit | March 20, 2017

Philippe Van Cauteren is the curator for the upcoming Kathmandu Triennale, which focuses on the theme of the city. He is the Artistic Director of Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent, Belgium. Cauteren has also worked as a freelance curator and publicist in Germany, Mexico, Chile and Brazil, and has been represented twice at the Venice Biennale. In 2015, he was appointed by the RUYA Foundation to curate the Iraqi Pavilion.

What does curation mean to you as a creative process?

The words “curation” and “curating” come to me with a certain ambivalence. It is only with the professionalisation of the art world that this word appears and has, at times, taken on a bigger importance than even the word “artist”. Recently, the famous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was wondering if it was not time to find another word for “curator”. This, to me, indicates a problem with the word. If you look at the origin of the word from the latin word “curare”, it means to take care of and cherish. This would be the ideal perspective to look at curating – taking care of the artist by having a solid and substantial exchange to provoke or inspire the right process or intervention.

At the level of an exhibition like the Kathmandu Triennale, which is like a festival, curating is also about trying to understand the place where one works. As best as possible, you have to try to understand the cultural and social surrounding in which you are active. This is a complex element wherever you are active – whether Belgium, France, Iraq or Nepal – you are always an intruder, a guest. But it is about developing empathy for our surroundings and its contexts to identify good and meaningful interventions or additions.

In your curatorial statement you state, “An exhibition is namely a tool (for transformation) and an instrument, which generates meaning, and that which serves, in its spatial articulation, to make the predefined artwork to become ‘elastic.’” Can you go into this idea of elasticity as it seems pertinent to your curatorial understanding?

Yes, with the elasticity, I think and hope that we hold the notion that an art work is not a unidimensional thing – it is not something that can be read or understood in one way. It is not to be taken like a scientific model or mathematical proof. How an art work interacts with its surroundings and spectators means that it has a very flexible existence, it always interacts with a plurality of people. What an art work means for you does not necessarily mean the same for me, in this sense, it has an elastic way of existence. In relation to the Triennale in post-earthquake Kathmandu where many things are still fragile and in some cases uncertain and not evident, the artists and the art works need this elastic capacity to answer to the place in which he or she is coming into.

So in terms of curating this exhibition, is it more about taking what the artists are doing in terms of that elasticity within their art or are you trying to create a space where those conversations could open up? How do you approach this part of the curation, is it spatial or art based?

Everything starts with the place of course, but you have to feel the necessity. If there is no necessity to do an exhibition then it is better not to do an exhibition. When I came to Nepal in November 2015 to teach a 10-day workshop, I had a fantastic exchange of dialogue with the people whom I was teaching. I fell in love with the city and this idea of doing the Triennale came around from there.

Given how busy I already am, I would not have accepted the proposal to do the Triennale if I did not sense a necessity. For me, necessity should be at the core of every activity. Of course what is necessary for me is not necessary for another person. And in terms of art and culture, there can be a lot of disagreements about necessity. Most politicians, in any country in the world, will not see art and culture as a necessary tool in society. But I have this belief – it might be a romantic one – that art is as valid for society as is a butcher, supermarket, religion and law.

Art is a means for healing. Through an intangible and nonfunctional way, art can have a therapeutic effect on society. Of course this is not measurable, like how a certain medical treatment can lead to a decline in mortality. On the contrary, art is neither quantifiable nor does it have a direct function. Art holds up an extreme mirror to society. It is the best way to get a critical view of ourselves, our society and the world we live in and there is no better person to do this than an artist – not a journalist or scientist – because an artist thinks, proceeds with and processes images and things as a means to connect the past, present and future. Almost no one else does this.

Going back to the idea of curation and this idea of the artist, the Triennale isn’t just happening in one location, it is happening in multiple locations around the city – Patan Museum, Nepal Art Council, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Taragaon Museum – how do you approach the curatorial work itself?

Keep in mind that this is one exhibition happening in four different locations. The Kathmandu Triennale is one exhibition that is interconnected across these spaces. Each of the locations represent four different typologies of spaces. For instance, the Nepali Art Council has long been used for art practices, the Patan Museum reflects a certain part and layer of Nepali history and society, the Taragaon Museum was built to be a hotel by an Austrian architect and is a Western space, while the Siddhartha Art Gallery is a logical place for art.

Each of our locations is being used in a different way and the artists in them are being presented in a different way. In the Art Council, the artworks will interact with each other whereas in the Taragaon Museum you will have separate exhibitions in the individual units you find there. The kind of artist we present in the different places is determined by its architectural gifts. The four locations are of the same importance, but we try to answer to the space with respect to the context and the origin of the place.

The title of the exhibition, as you know, is “The City, My Studio / The City, My Life”. This reflects the notion of the city as a kind of primordial place where life takes place, a source of inspiration, a working ground and context for the art itself. The Triennale is also not just the presentation of the art works but also the conversations, meetings and the sharing of ideas. The art work is just the first step to build collaborations and partnerships.

The Triennale is like a pumping system to show the potential of the arts in other industries in the city. This is why we have invested a lot into our outreach to work with schools and children to give the exhibition as many anchors as possible. We want to show that there is a necessity to continue this and that there should be a second one in 2020. This exhibition is a part of Kathmandu. I am not a person who is here to do my thing and then leave, I bring my experience of close to 20 years in different places and locations but it is the city that is doing the exhibition.

What do you think makes the Kathmandu Triennale necessary at this point of time?

I met many Nepali artists – I think around 60 to 70 – from different generations. I have tremendous respect for the engagement with which they work. There were a number of artists who responded to the earthquake by taking art along with basic necessities. These artists took a stance. They said that they too could contribute and address the tragedy by helping people and softening the trauma people went through. You may believe in it or not, but it is a very courageous position for artists to take. The generosity of the artists in Nepal is in taking on cultural responsibility. They go beyond their own need to create their art works and take a position in society.

Another remarkable thing in Nepal is this remarkable continuum of the traditional arts. The tradition is very present while at the other end of the spectrum are contemporary artists and artists who think they are contemporary but are maybe more traditional than traditional artists. It’s fantastic to see so many art practices existing at the same time. However, I see there is a lack of a person – going back to the idea of a curator – who mediates between the artist and their art work. Someone to make their work more precise and help the artist formulate his or her work more precisely and accurately while thinking better about the form and content of the art work. If it is not in the sense of taking care, I have a very ambivalent relationship with the notion of a curator. I hope that the Triennale will show what the role of the curator can be and how meaningful it can be.

In terms of the artist taking a stance in society, would you be able to curate an exhibition with artists whose ethical stance or ethos you do not agree with?

I wouldn’t be able to, of course not, but I can understand that the artist is the only person in society who is able to deal with ethical questions in a different way. The rest of us have to work within the parameters of social compromise, whereas the artist is the only one who can stand outside this logic and take on another ethical position: but he or she also has to bear the consequences of it. But I would never collaborate or deal with an artist whose ethical position I would not be able to embrace.

Let me be clear about this – this does not mean I will not engage with artists with whom I disagree, there are after all plenty of positions. Even in this exhibition, there are artists with whom I do not agree 100%, but I still respect them. You do need something in common, even if it is a broad cultural sense and belief in the validation of art for society. In contrast, I would never deal with an artist who promotes ideas of racism, inequality and discrimination or takes a position against humanity.

Sticking with the politics that is associated with the arts, and the “city” that is central to the Triennale’s theme. Cities are places of both diversity and inequality: how do you balance the engagement with the city and make it accessible?

All spaces are spaces of inequality, not only the city, like the school system, the medical system. Unfortunately, inequality is one of the most difficult things to get rid of in the world. In Nepal, the caste system is not officially validated, but you will still see it play out for many generations. In my country, as well, various forms of inequality are present. I believe we have to try to have people participate in the Triennale to multiply the moments of contact between artists and viewers. This is why we emphasise our outreach to schools, kids and young people. Most international artists are coming here to have an exchange with Nepali artists. We will be doing workshops, masterclasses, portfolio reviews – I want the artists to come to Nepal not just to enjoy themselves but to work, work, work and share their knowledge and point of views. I should also emphasise that the exhibition is a tool for information and communication. The Triennale is a catalyst. I hope it can add to fighting indifference, inspiring youth and encouraging the next generation to contribute to the future of this country.

How do you curate the outreach? Do you design the exhibition and then build the outreach or is outreach part of the exhibition design itself?

At the core of everything is the artist and the art, always. That is the starting point. But, of course, you do not think linearly. You don’t think, first comes the artist and then comes the second thing and then the third thing. You take it all together. So, from the beginning, we said our outreach is important. In each of the four locations, we will have outreach units. Also, the whole process of reaching out to schools and young people has already started and has been happening for months already. You cannot separate it, you have to think of it as a whole. But, we must acknowledge that we can do these things thanks to the artists and the art works.

What happens after the exhibition? Will there be any publications?

The exhibition only lasts two weeks. During this time, the focus is very strongly on things happening in Kathmandu and Nepal even though there will be plenty of guests visiting. We will be making a catalogue for the Triennale by the end of this year to give us time to prepare it well. We will include shots of all the exhibits and will include some critical texts on the exhibition. This catalogue will be the only thing left over from the exhibition, the only tangible thing that will remain. Most art works are temporary and this will be the only record of everything. For me, this catalogue will be a very important tool and will be a means to provide knowledge and information about the exhibition worldwide. We will also use it to prepare for the next Triennale in 2020.

The Kathmandu Triennale will be held in various locations around Kathmandu from March 24, 2017 to April 9, 2017. For further information, please visit: www.kt.artmandu.org.  

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